Fusion energy roadmap pushing emissions-free energy onto political radar, Innovation Agenda
January 18, 2017
First order of business is talent
Energy fusion research is back on the political radar with the release of a roadmap that calls for a national program and $250 million over five years to build capacity and position Canada as a global competitor. Supported by a group of academics, not-for-profits and industry, the roadmap was presented to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources last November and has been tabled as part of the consultations to both the fundamental science review and the Innovation Agenda.
Fusion 2030: Roadmap for Canada details the country’s long and largely feeble participation in energy fusion research dating back decades and marked by abandoned initiatives and a failed attempt to attract a massive fusion facility here in the early 2000s. But with the decision to develop a new Innovation Agenda and climate change and clean tech now top federal priorities, the prospects are brighter than they have been in years, according to one of Canada’s leading experts in the field.
“For the first time our federal and provincial governments have put climate change and innovation on their agendas. We now have the words but will be have the deeds?” asks Dr Allan Offenberger, professor emeritus of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the Univ of Alberta. “Canada and the world are still one-to-two decades away from solutions, but we can still get back in and do good work.”
Fusion energy has been a long touted holy grail for weaning the planet off carbon-based fuels. It produces no greenhouse gas emissions, has minimal fuel requirements and represents a far smaller and shorter radiation hazard compared to conventional nuclear plants. Until recently the science could not determine when large-scale fusion energy could be realized but that has now changed as researchers around the world make progress in tackling major challenges.
“The clock started ticking five or 10 years ago. The start point has now been fixed,” says Matthew Dalzell, partnerships manager at the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, based at Saskatoon’s Innovation Place. “Fusion energy is a hugely complex problem but if we crack it, we solve a host of challenges we face now from climate change to energy poverty, pollution and even coal accidents.”
The roadmap highlights the different approaches to fusion energy production, including magnetic fusion energy (MFE), inertial fusion energy (IFE) and alternative methods such as magnetized target infusion. It also lists a wide range of technologies and that could help generate the breakthroughs required to realize the construction of a demonstration prototype fusion power plant by 2030. Those technologies include lasers, optics, photonics, materials science, targets, robotics, sensors, computing (controls, data, analytical methods), additive manufacturing and fusion systems engineering.
Fusion 2030 Roadmap Backers
|General Fusion (BC)
|University of Alberta
|Alberta/Canada Fusion Technology Alliance
|University of Saskatchewan
|University of Ontario Institute of Technology
|Hope Innovations Inc (ON)
Plasmionique Inc (QC)
Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation
Rather than target a single approach, the roadmap recommends that capacity building occur with all three approaches, as well as the engineering and technology required for the development of pilot plants.
“At the moment, the roadmap is technology agnostic. We need to build capacity in all areas and choose later … If a breakthrough occurs, we can then look at how to back that particular technology,” says Dalzell. “Then there all areas like simulation, controls, materials and engineering. These questions need to be asked and are independent of what is in the middle of the reactor.”
“Our Fusion 2030 roadmap calls for a revitalized Canadian National Fusion Program, in concert with provincial initiatives, to prepare Canada for the coming fusion era. A three phase program of capacity building and technology development is described, culminating in construction of demonstration fusion power plants and the establishment of a multi-billion dollar fusion energy industry in Canada. Preparedness and participation are the key attributes of the strategy. When tasked with “big issues”, Canada has repeatedly demonstrated the capability to adapt, innovate and achieve. Sustainable, clean base-load energy to replace carbon fuels is the paramount issue of this century and fusion is a major part of the solution. Canada needs to be involved.”
Fusion 2030: Roadmap for Canada
Ongoing technical challenges has resulted in a dearth of viable companies in the field. One of the world’s largest fusion energy companies is Burnaby BC-based General Fusion which has attracted more than $100 million in venture capital and government funding. The latter includes $26.7 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) in two separate awards (2009 and 2016) to design and develop an industrial-scale energy demonstration system based on its Magnetized Target Fusion technology.
The latest SDTC award of $12.75 million supports General Fusion in a partnership with McGill Univ's Shock Wave Physics Group and Hatch Ltd—a Mississauga ON-based global engineering firm—on the design of a full-scale energy demonstration system.
“There are new technologies coming to bear and Canada is not beholden to any large projects so there’s a clean slate,” says Michael Delage, General Fusion’s chief technology officer, who plays a key role in the roadmap’s development. “The government’s climate change and Innovation Agenda priorities got everyone thinking. Clean technology is now a priority.”
Delage argues that $250 million in federal and provincial funding for capacity building is critical if Canada is to become a major player in fusion energy.
“It will have a really big impact through the creation of new faculty positions and international engagement,” says Delage. “The capacity building phase will allow us to better compete for more funding at the federal and provincial levels.”
Delage says interest in fusion energy is increasing at both the provincial and federal levels, noting that prime minister Justin Trudeau visited his company’s facilities during the election campaign to announce the Liberal party’s clean tech agenda. That signalling is critical for Canada to re-enter the field at a time when international collaborations and other nations investing heavily.
“There’s been a decay in Canada of research in key areas like plasma since the 1990s. It’s hard for a company like General Fusion to work in isolation,” he says. “The ecosystem is really important for all sorts of reasons and there’s still a chance for Canada to compete.”
Building the talent pipeline
Both Dalzell and Offenberger agree that the first order of business is to boost the pipeline of highly qualified personnel (HQP) which will drive funding requests for research and associated infrastructure, hence the funding request for a three-stage capacity building phase to regain world-player status in five years and become a world leader in 10 years.
“The U of A is hiring four new faculty in laser plasma fusion,” says Offenberger. “With more training we can post graduates to international labs to move up the knowledge ladder more quickly.”
“The roadmap’s initial objective is to get fusion on the table as a viable alternative—nuclear in general but fusion in particular. It doesn’t emit carbon,” says Dalzell. “We have many outstanding fusion researchers trained in Canada but working elsewhere. We need to attract the experts back to Canada to train the next crop.”
Delage says he’d like to see capacity building in fusion energy modelled on Genome Canada, which was instrumental in pulling Canada out of near oblivion in genomics research to emerge as a major global player in about 15 years. He also points to the genomics sector’s close collaboration between biotechnology companies and academic institutions as a model for fusion energy.
“Companies that establish tight collaborations with universities see those collaborations grow over time,” he says. “Integration works well but we haven’t captured that model yet … We’re in discussions with the Univ of British Columbia and Simon Fraser Univ on future collaboration.”